[HOWTO] Upgrade Your Old, Slow Computer (and when you shouldn't)

Category: Hardware

Is your aging computer struggling to keep up with the latest apps and modern operating systems? Maybe it's bogged down with the weight of cosmic computer crud that's built up over the years. Should you junk it and buy a new one, or upgrade its hardware? The answer is highly dependent upon your specific circumstances. Here are my tips and guidelines for making that decision, and some Windows 11 considerations too...

Should You Upgrade That Old Computer?

First, ask yourself if your computer is too slow for you, or for someone else. Did you think, “Gee, my computer is slow” before your friend with the brand new computer said, “Gee, your computer is slow!”? If you’re getting done all you want to get done, and fast enough for you, you may not need to upgrade. But if you're not satisfied, read on!

Some upgrades do help you get more work done faster, while others just make work more pleasant for you. A bigger monitor may be just what your tired, watery eyes need. A more ergonomic keyboard or mouse is another comfort upgrade; not that comfort doesn’t improve performance, but it’s mainly the comfort that counts. Twenty years ago, I was diagnosed with carpal tunnel syndrome. My doctor suggested both drugs and surgery, but switching to an ergonomic keyboard with the split/curved key layout completely eliminated my pain. When I type on a "regular" keyboard (the cheap, rectangular ones that usually come with new computers) I feel that familar wrist pain again.

Best Computer Upgrades

Upgrading a monitor is a significant investment. But if you're often using two programs at once, or find your limited screen real estate is slowing you down (switching from one app to another, or always scrolling), a larger, higher resolution monitor may be a good investment. But you should also consider ADDING a monitor. Check out my article Dual Monitors: Good Reasons to Upgrade and consider the potential benefits of adding a second screen to your desktop setup.

I was recently diagnosed with a retina problem that makes it harder for me to see my computer screen. Having two 24-inch monitors side-by-side allows me to increase font sizes as needed so I can manage better.

Amazon has a selection of 24-inch computer monitors (rated 4-stars or higher) starting at $89. This Sceptre 24-inch IPS Monitor has both HDMI and VGA Ports, Full HD resolution, built-in speakers, and tiltable stand. If you want something larger, this ViewSonic 32-Inch 32 Inch 1080p Frameless Widescreen IPS Monitor is available for $195 with free shipping. Two of those would make an awesome dual-monitor setup!

Keep in mind that you may need a better graphics card to match the ports and capabilities of a modern monitor, or a dual-monitor setup. A dedicated graphics card can take some computing burden off your CPU, making actual computation faster; but the increase in CPU performance won’t be very large.

Upgrading Memory and Hard Drive

Here's one zero-cost option for speeding up an older computer. Consider moving away from Windows, and switching to the Linux operating system. Linux tends to require less in the way of hardware resources, so it can be a good option for older computers that bog down with newer versions of Windows. Check out Linux Mint and Zorin OS as Linux versions that have a familiar Windows-like interface. Zorin lets you configure the desktop to resemble Windows or Mac OS X.

More RAM memory provides significant performance boosts at reasonable cost, up to a point. If you have too little RAM for the types of applications and the size of data files that you use, a lot of time and CPU power is wasted swapping data from RAM to disk and back again in “pages.” On the other hand, excess RAM just sits there idle, a waste of money that makes no discernible difference in performance.

A rule of thumb is that general home users need a minimum of 4 GB of RAM; business and power users, 8 GB or more; and only the busiest video editors, database administrators, or gamers need 16+ GB of RAM. But modern versions of Windows can work with up to 2 TB (terabytes) of RAM memory. The operating system you have is very important when considering buying RAM. 8GB of RAM memory can cost as little as $15. See my article Will More Memory Speed Up Your Computer? for more tips on upgrading your system's RAM memory.

Increasing the size, thoughput and access speed of hard drive storage is a tempting upgrade option. A traditional magnetic hard drive that spins at 7200 rpm is much better than one spinning at 5400 rpm. Solid-State Drives (SSDs) are faster, but they are more expensive compared to magnetic hard drives. But here's something to consider… right now, a 1 terabyte (1000 gigabytes) magnetic hard drive costs about the same as a 256 GB SSD drive -- roughly US$40. But if you've only got 100 GB of data, the SSD is obviously a better buy, even though it holds about one fourth as much data.

If you're thinking about a new hard drive because you're running out of space to stash your stuff, first try a little spring cleaning, and see how many gigabytes of garbage you can get rid of. Unwanted software, temp files, an old operating system, and duplicate files can chew up a lot of space. A careful pruning of music, photos, and video files may yield big gains as well. See Free Tools to Tune and Optimize Your Hard Drive for more tips and free software you can use to get the job done.

A word about Windows 11 seems appropriate here. You're probably aware by now that Microsoft has released Windows 11, but there has been much confusion about the hardware specs required to run the newest version of the Windows operating system. The short answer is if your computer is more than three years old, it probably won't make the cut. To run Windows 11, your PC must have the Secure Boot feature, a TPM 2.0 chip, and an 8th-generation or newer Intel CPU (or certain AMD Ryzen processors). That's geeky, I know, but you can run the Microsoft PC Health Check App to find out if your PC is compatible.

So here's my advice for Windows 10 users: If you're thinking about a new computer, it will come with Windows 11, so on the hardware front you're covered. If your computer doesn't have all the bells and whistles required to run Windows 11, you're really not missing much. Windows 10 will continue to run just fine on your current PC, and is supported through October 2025.

Deciding whether to upgrade or buy a new machine can be difficult. But doing the actual upgrades requires only a screwdriver and a little gumption. If you are comfortable installing upgrades yourself, just add up the costs of planned upgrades and compare it to the price of new machines. But that simple cost analysis ignores half the cost/benefit ratio. You really don’t know how well an upgraded computer will perform until after you buy and install the upgrade(s), so it’s impossible to compare it to a new machine.

Generally, I would buy new rather than spend more than a third of new’s cost on upgrades. What upgrades have you done on your computer? Are you glad you did? Your thoughts on this topic are welcome. Post your comment or question below...

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Most recent comments on "[HOWTO] Upgrade Your Old, Slow Computer (and when you shouldn't)"

Posted by:

John Epstein
28 Jun 2023

I recently had a hard drive crash and replaced an old magnetic drive with a new 1 TB Samsung EVO SSD drive for about $60. I was shocked at how much faster the computer ran given that the only difference was the SSD drive.

Posted by:

28 Jun 2023

SSD and 8Gb of memory are the way to go.

Posted by:

Ihor Prociuk
29 Jun 2023

Hi Bob:

Upgrading hardware (screen, RAM, disk, etc.) in place (i.e., on the same computer) is relatively straightforward. I've already upgraded my hard drive to a (bigger) SSD. But I've got a really (really) old laptop that only allows a maximum of 3GB of RAM and it definitely doesn't pass the Microsoft Health Check. Besides, the CPU is sluggish and ancient (Pentium dual core. Yikes!) so I'd like to upgrade to a new computer. That also means moving from Windows 10 to 11.

The new computer will probably come with Windows 11. I'm guessing that moving data (documents, photos, videos, files, etc.) to the new system could be done (in the simplest case) using Windows File History: backup on the old computer, restore on the new. Moving APPLICATIONS/SOFTWARE is a different matter: File History doesn't do apps. If I had been really careful (ahem) and kept all my original installation disks, I suppose I could just re-install all the apps. But even if this were possible, there could be years and years of software upgrades, patches, and settings that would have to be applied.

I understand there is software that can handle moving apps: Laplink's PCmover, EaseUS Todo, Zinstall, etc. I'm wondering if anyone has had experience with this type of software Or maybe Bob can do an article that focuses JUST on this type of software.

Posted by:

Ernest N. Wilcox Jr. (Oldster)
29 Jun 2023

I assemble my own desktop PCs here. I haven't purchased a brand named computer since my wife and I got our first PC, a Gateway IBM-compatible (640KB RAM, 100MB hard drive, 14" color EVGA display) way back in the bad old DOS days. I try to make sure my machines have more RAM and storage capacity than I really need, and - yes, I know that's contrary to Bob's recommendations. I hear people speak of computer builds, but what they are really doing is assembling the components that make up a computer unless they are building their own circuit boards and mounting chips/chip-sets on them.

If I had my way, there'd be laptop cases I could use to assemble my own laptops too, but I haven't found any yet, at least not at a price-point I can afford ($100.00-$150.00 US is my limit for any enclosure). When I choose a laptop PC, I want it to come with at least 16GB RAM, an empty RAM slot for future upgrades, and support for at least 32GB (who knows what Windows 12 etc. will require).

When required, I upgrade RAM and SSD/Hard Drives on my laptops. On my desktop PC I choose components that will meet/exceed my needs when I assemble it, but over time components can prove to be faulty or develop faults, so I replace anything that fails/acts up myself (a very infrequent event).

Any time I work on a computer, I get out my anti-static grounding wrist strap, my anti-static work pad, and my set of non-conductive/zero-static computer tools to avoid static discharge. These tools were rather expensive, but they were a one-time purchase. I've had my tools for about a quarter century. My secret is that these tools are only used on computers by me, and I always clean them and store them in the storage cases that came with them, then put the storage cases in the carrying case I got way back then to keep my computer tools together. These tools are never used on anything other than electric/electronic devices - period.

My single most important recommendations are when you work on a computer, make sure you've grounded yourself to its chassis before you touch any component inside, and before you open the case of a desktop/laptop, take the time to get/download the service manual for that machine so you can learn how to get at whatever you are replacing/upgrading. Most brand named sellers (Dell, Lenovo, etc.) have these manuals available on their websites.


Posted by:

Ernest N. Wilcox Jr. (Oldster)
29 Jun 2023

@Ihor Prociuk,

Since the laptop you're asking about is so old, you may be better served to look for free equivalents to the programs you use, or you may try to find the program's websites on the Internet although you may have to purchase them again. I say this because the technology has changed so much (BIOS is now UEFI with Secure Boot, and disk partitions are now GPT instead of MBR, and the system is 64-bit rather than 32-bit). While Windows 11 has a compatibility mode, it doesn't work for all 32-bit programs.

I suppose it won't hurt to try one (or more) of the solutions you mention in your original post, but that is something I've never tried to do.

I'm sorry I can't help with that,


Posted by:

29 Jun 2023

Regarding my desktop computer, I replaced the motherboard to allow me to have the upgraded chip. After checking systems, backing up, deleting junk, and doing other maintenance and security checks, I upgraded to Windows 11. Also, it is a dual boot system, so that I have a menu to choose Linux or Windows 11. I'm very happy that I did not buy a new computer and the fact that my desktop runs fabulously.

Thank you Bob for another great article!

Posted by:

29 Jun 2023

If you want to be able to replace and update your laptop and are not that computer savvy here is a cautionary tale.

We are not that computer savvy but have always been able to add RAM on our laptops, easily, just unscrewed a hatch and slipped it in the slot.

UNTIL the last one, you had to almost disassemble the whole thing to get extra RAM in.

We decided that was too hard and bought a new laptop instead. We added to our list of needs for the new machine how easy it would be to add RAM in the future.

Posted by:

29 Jun 2023

I use a computer for a wide variety of activities and I have found an advantage of using a specific computer for each different function, rather than one computer to do all things. I have maintained at least 4 older computers, including one originally a Win 7, by "upgrading" them as you suggest. This included adding maximum RAM, replacing the hard drive with an SSD, and converting them all to Win 10. None will upgrade further to Win 11, I will continue to use some off-line and purchase Win 11 as needed. Thanks for your comments.

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